DAVID SMITH - Thursday, June 30, 2016
Perry Kitchen heads a quartet of Americans expected to be in action when the long slog of Europa League qualification kicks off on Thursday night.
Heart of Midlothian - FC Infonet Tallinn
Perry Kitchen will be available for selection on Thursday when Hearts host Estonian opponents FC Infonet Tallinn in their first round qualifier.
Hearts coach Robbie Neilson has stated that he intends to include the defensive midfielder in his squad for the European qualifier despite having just returned from national team duty for the Copa América.
The team is back in Europe after a four-year absence, having finished third in the Scottish Premier League standings last season.
Their last two campaigns have ended with aggregate losses to English teams in the final step before the group stage, although they do have a much longer road to navigate this time around.
Their opponents, FC Infonet Tallinn, are in their maiden European campaign, having only gained promotion to the top flight for the first time in their history in 2012. They are currently performing well in Estonia's Meistriliiga, sitting just one point off the league lead after approximately half of the season.
Connah's Quay Nomads FC - Stabæk
Stabæk midfielder Cole Grossman should be a starter for the Norwegians when they visit Welsh fourth-place team Connah's Quay Nomads FC on Thursday.
Grossman has been a regular in the struggling squad's midfield this season, starting their previous seven games before the current international pause as well as their two most recent cup games.
The team has not fared very well since Bob Bradley's departure, currently occupying one of the division's two automatic relegation places near the halfway mark of the season.
Their two-game date with European debutants Connah's Quay Nomads FC, last season's fifth-place finishers in the Welsh Premier League, could provide a momentum boost they need to spring ahead of the dense pack near the bottom of the table.
They have never made the group stage of the Europa League, however are experienced in the early summer stages of European play with six qualification appearances in the last decade.
Shamrock Rovers FC - RoPS
Will John has a good chance to start for Finnish RoPS while Tyler Back could suit up as the backup keeper when the team visits Irish side Shamrock Rovers FC.
Both teams play in summer-based seasons and are near the midpoints of their current term. Each of them also finds themselves in a similar league situation of sitting just barely below the cut-off line for next year's European qualification.
RoPS are in only their second European campaign since the early-90s, and are facing a Shamrock squad that are almost yearly participants in qualification.
John has been a regular starter for RoPS, with a pair of goals and of assists to his name through 13 games.
Back has only played for RoPS in Cup and reserve games, although he could be on the bench for both games of this qualification tie.
Odds BK - IFK Mariehamn
Brian Span should be in the starting lineup for Finnish team IFK Mariehamn on Thursday when they travel to face Norwegians Odds BK.
Mariehamn are having their second go-around on the European stage, having been eliminated at this same stage three years ago by Azerbaijan club Inter Baku.
They are having a stellar domestic season in Finland's Vaikkausliiga, currently tied with HJK on points for the league lead, although trailing by way of goal differential.
Their Norwegian opponents came within one agonizing step of navigating all four qualification rounds to reach the group stage last season. After beating Moldovians Sheriff Tiraspol, Irish powerhouse Shamrock Rovers and finally Swedish neighbors IF Elfsborg, they were stopped at the last step, being thoroughly beaten 11-5 on aggregate by Borussia Dortmund.
The 24 year-old Span has been consistently starting for Mariehamn on the right side of the midfield, and should do the same on Thursday in Norway.
Sachem Wilson, who just joined Slovenians ND Gorica in late-June, has been a substitute in the team's recent pre-season warm-up game, and could play a role when they visit Maccabi Tel-Aviv on Thursday.